Nothing goes as planned in Ada Calhoun’s Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me (Grove, June), but that’s precisely why it captivates. When things became difficult while she was writing the book, Calhoun stuck to her journalistic instincts and dove deeper. What she landed on was something more distinct and remarkably richer than what she’d originally envisioned.
The narrative’s beating heart is the fraught relationship between Calhoun and her father, the renowned art critic Peter Schjeldahl. That didn’t become evident, though, until she was halfway through an attempt to complete a biography that Schjeldahl had started in the 1970s of his peer and idol, the poet Frank O’Hara.
Until a few years ago, Calhoun knew nothing of the abandoned project. Then, in 2018, she stumbled upon a hoard of cassette tapes—they featured dozens of interviews with O’Hara’s coterie of friends, many of them poets and painters from the New York School—in the basement of Schjeldahl’s apartment building in the East Village. After that, she made it her mission to finish what her father had started.
By then, Calhoun had already published two of her own books to great acclaim: 2017’s Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give, a collection of humorous essays about marriage, and 2015’s St. Marks Is Dead, a kaleidoscopic history of New York City’s St. Marks Place, long the epicenter of Manhattan’s counterculture scene and the street where Calhoun grew up with Schjeldahl and her mother, the actor Brooke Alderson.
The resurrected biography, however, would be a tad different. “The whole idea was I was going to swoop in and fix it,” Calhoun explains over Zoom from the apartment she shares with her husband, son, and cat in Brooklyn. With tousled bleach-blonde hair, she gives off a kind of Debbie Harry, circa the 1970s, energy—Harry’s legendary band Blondie found fame at CBGB, a club few blocks down from Calhoun’s old stomping grounds.
At 46, Calhoun is no stranger to fixing or finishing things. In fact, as an accomplished ghostwriter with 20 books under her belt, it’s more or less her job. “My husband calls me Mr. Wolf,” she says, referring to the character, played by Harvey Keitel, who orchestrates the cleanup of the murder scenes in Pulp Fiction. “I just thought, I can be that here. I can just come in and fix it all. I can take all this material and make something that my father will be so proud of, and it’ll be such a nice moment for us.”
In a sense, Calhoun did what she set out to do, correcting the story of who O’Hara was. He was largely unrecognized as a poet when he died at 40 in 1966, and his obituary in the New York Times infamously stated, in the subhead, “Exhibitions Aide at Modern Art Dies—Also a Poet.” In addition to incorrectly stating that O’Hara was hit by a taxi on Fire Island—it was actually a dune buggy—Calhoun writes that the obit painted the poet as “little more than a museum functionary” and a muse to other, more famous, figures such as abstract expressionist painter Larry Rivers.
But to people like Schjeldahl, who lived and breathed art and literature, O’Hara was the soul of 1960s New York’s whirling world of creative cosmopolitans and the “lusty new gay sensibility” that sprang from it. It was O’Hara’s poetic renderings of New York City—“jovial drunkenness, Times Square billboards, Greenwich Village parties that spilled out into the street”—that drew Schjeldahl from Fargo, N.Dak., to Manhattan in the early ’60s, where he soon fell into the orbit of poets like Kenneth Koch, Ron Padgett, and O’Hara himself. “In a way,” Calhoun says, “O’Hara was the grandfather who came first and settled the land for the family. I thought of him as this elder or as a patron saint.”
In the Village Voice, Schjeldahl’s own O’Hara obituary casts the poet in a more dynamic light, stating, “Everything about O’Hara is easy to demonstrate and exceedingly difficult to ‘understand.’ And the aura of the legendary, never far from him while he lived, now seems about to engulf the memory of all he was and did.”
Taking up her father’s mantle, Calhoun draws out the more complex aspects of O’Hara, bringing to life not just the enduring brilliance of his words but what coursed beneath them: his irrepressible and playful sensuality (which included a penchant for seducing mail carriers), his reckless pursuit of joy, and his ability to see potential and beauty in everything.
Composer Ned Rorem wrote in Gay Sunshine magazine that when O’Hara died, “New York City was overrun with widows of all sexes.” It’s perhaps fair to say that Schjeldahl was one of those widows. “O’Hara’s legacy,” Calhoun writes, “haunted my father and inflected his sentences.”
Calhoun’s and her father’s passion for O’Hara was the connective tissue between them, even when they weren’t on the same page, which was often the case. As she writes in the book, “I’ve always been a mystery to my father and he to me. The main difference is that I’ve been fascinated by him, and he’s often seemed to forget I was there.” It’s the tension of her strained relationship with Schjeldahl that gives the book its electric emotional current, as well as its universality.
When Calhoun’s research on O’Hara was stonewalled by the poet’s younger sister, the executor of his estate (who is staunchly opposed to any endeavor to publicly chronicle her brother’s life, including Schjeldahl’s), it started to become clear that the story she was after wasn’t just O’Hara’s; it was hers and her father’s, too. That revelation became more urgent when, in 2020, Schjeldahl was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer (spoiler: he’s still alive).
“A couple people who read the book early remarked that my writing about my father was really honest and brave,” Calhoun says. “I think I definitely wrote the book thinking he wouldn’t actually read it.” It’s true, she doesn’t hold back when depicting Schjeldahl, whom she describes as “alternately warm and scalding,” or her fervent desire to become “more than a great man’s daughter,” even if achieving that required her to hustle twice as hard as he did.
The same year Schjeldahl was diagnosed with cancer, Calhoun hit the New York Times bestsellers list with her third work, Why We Can’t Sleep, a scorching treatise about the ways Gen X women have been led astray by hollow messages of “having it all”: motherhood, thriving career, perfect hair, etc. Traces of that book’s disillusionment can be found in Also a Poet, as Calhoun juxtaposes her career—and the compromises she’s had to make as a mother—with the success of her father, who, Calhoun notes, “lived his whole life for writing.”
“[When Calhoun was growing up] Schjeldahl was a writer first and insisted that writing come before everything in his life, Ada included,” says Katie Raissian, Calhoun’s editor at Grove. “Ada obviously has done the opposite while cultivating a very successful, important writing career.”
But Calhoun’s not about settling scores or forcing a redemptive narrative that doesn’t come naturally. Instead, her multidimensional account intertwines three lives to tell a story that’s surprisingly quite simple: people are complicated. Calhoun says O’Hara “sprinkled fairy dust on the difficult parts of life to make them warm and inviting and generous,” and she does the same, finding beauty and potential in everything. “My father did me a favor by not paying attention to me, because I made myself interesting,” she explains.
Schjeldahl’s thoughts on the book? “He was pleasantly surprised,” Calhoun says. “He actually thought he’d come off worse.”